The animal had been shipped to Lisbon in 1515 as a gift to King Manuel I of Portugal by Afonso de Albequerque the governor of Portuguese India. It was to be housed in the King’s menagerie at the Ribeira Palace in Lisbon. Its arrival caused a sensation and attracted crowds of visitors for several months eager to see for themselves an exotic creature from antiquity that had been newly rediscovered.
Durer was a master of the woodcut and had brought greater artistic vision and intellectual depth to the medium. His skill can be seen in the delicate shading and the intricate patterning of the animal’s hide. His woodcuts had made him one of the most famous and successful artists in Europe. Developments in printing technology meant that his “Rhinoceros” could be reproduced in much greater quantities than previously and priced to be within the reach of the less wealthy.
Durer never saw the rhinoceros himself. He did see descriptions of the animal, and even a sketch, sent from Lisbon to Nuremburg by eyewitnesses. He made his own drawing of the animal and soon produced the woodcut that proved to be one of the most commercially successful of its time. It is thought to have sold as many as 5,000 copies in Durer’s lifetime and was to become the iconic image that Europeans turned to describe the rhinoceros until well into the eighteenth century.
To the modern eye it does not appear to be a very realistic depiction of a rhinoceros. The thick folded skin of the Indian rhinoceros has been portrayed as something more like armour plating. The rhinoceros’ horn is much larger and imposing than in nature and, indeed, Durer shows the animal as having a second, smaller, spiral horn on its back. Durer’s text at the top of the woodcut confirms the impression that the image gives of a powerful fighting beast feared even by elephants. He also assures the viewer that “This is an accurate representation”.
But Durer’s “Rhinoceros” is more than just the depiction of an exotic beast. It is an emblem of the world of his time. It is a world in which the nations of Europe were competing not just in Europe itself but across the globe in Asia as well as the Americas. This image of a gift from a colonial governor to his king reflects a confidently expansionist Europe intent on bringing what it saw as its own superior civilisation to a world outside Europe that it thought savage and ignorant. The Rhinoceros, which must have seemed like a mythical beast to those that viewed it first in Lisbon, would have been a potent symbol of that exotic, untamed, outside world to which Europe was bringing order and enlightenment.
The commercial success of Durer’s image reflected the excitement that had been created by the animal’s arrival. His decision to issue the image as a woodcut made it accessible to many more people eager to experience something of that excitement. The excitement of Europe’s expanding horizons and ambitions as well as its increasing knowledge and understanding of the wider world and of nature.